Place your bets, Lincoln’s here and so is the Oscar race

Wednesday December 5th 2012

A few months ago I joined the London Film Critics’ Circle, a century-old association representing more than a hundred of the UK’s most esteemed film critics, Christopher Tookey and me. Each January, the LFCC hosts a swanky awards ceremony, and so throughout December members are expected to bone up on the year’s films, up to and including those released on the day of the ceremony itself. Inevitably, given that distributors hoping for awards glory tend to cram all their most worthy releases into a four-week window over the Christmas period, this makes for a pretty intense schedule of Oscar-bait viewing. This week alone sees screenings of Les MisérablesZero Dark ThirtyDjango UnchainedLife of PiLincolnThe Impossible, Hitchcock and The Hobbit.

All of which is my incredibly long-winded way of saying that I’m pretty accustomed to prestige movies at the moment. Illness, death, politics, history — these are the threads from which my cinematic patchwork is sewn during the yuletide season. And where the latter two are concerned at least, it’s going to be hard for any of this year’s Oscar hopefuls to out-prestige Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s deadly serious new biopic of the 16th President of ‘these’ United States.

Daniel Day-Lewis finally returns to the screen (for the first time since his massively underrated turn as Guido ‘Guido Guido Guido’ Contini in Nine) to play the eponymous statesman — by Lewis’s reckoning a kind of lean hipster type with a speaking voice one percussion section short of a Talking Heads record.

Am I right?

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The supporting cast meanwhile is an embarrassment of character actor riches, with oh-it’s-thems including David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and Jared Harris lining up to take their places in the epic legal battle between the racist Democrats and the slightly-less-racist Republicans that decided once-and-for-all the fate of American slavery.

Spielberg’s treatment of this serious subject matter is typically austere, respectful and borderline humourless, which makes for something of a monotonous two-and-a-half hours but also gives his star ample space to breathe. And fucking hell does he breathe. Of all the Academy-beloved thespians, Daniel Day-Lewis is pretty much the only one I find it impossible to muster snark for. Even as a historical figure considerably better known than any he’s played before, there’s no trace of impersonation in his performance. As Joaquin Phoenix might say, he’s obliterated the artifice.

The film itself can occasionally feel a little lifeless by comparison (as would you if you had Daniel Day-Lewis enunciating so beautifully in your immediate vicinity) but screenwriter Tony Kushner’s feel for a good ethical ambiguity at least raises Lincoln above the civil war drudgery of certain other recent Abe-based dramas. Sure, it might be The King’s Speech to the The Master‘s Social Network in this year’s Oscar race, but as unapologetically mainstream propositions go, the Academy (not to mention my London-based critical brethren) could do far, far worse.